Holley Gilbert retired on a Friday in March. Come Monday morning, she was on a plane headed toward a three-month visit in Africa.
After a short stint home to pack up her house in Vancouver, Washington, Gilbert returned to Zambia to not only explore the region but to volunteer with Vancouver’s Global Sojourns Giving Circle. For about three months, she taught English and journalism to local female students. After that experience, Gilbert said she’s hooked.
Global Sojourns was founded by Vancouver native Priscilla Plummer in 2007 with one goal: “act responsibly and sustainably, on a larger scale,” as stated on the nonprofit’s website. Since then, that goal has evolved. Global Sojourns helps support student groups – the majority of which are female-led – in Africa that look to educate and empower the community.
“We’re all in this together,” Plummer said. “It’s slow, but significant, change in individual lives.”
Plummer now lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and manages a team of volunteers there and in the U.S. who help support existing groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the groups are in Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are 17 clubs with about 15 members each.
Gilbert, a former Oregonian reporter and spokesperson for Clark County, spent her time volunteering in both countries.
“The goal is to make them self-sufficient and feel supported because they’re floating out there, many of them with little or nothing,” she said.
Each club member gets a notebook labeled “Believe.” The notebooks are emblematic of what Global Sojourns tries to instill in each of its members.
“We help girls stay in school and delay pregnancy. The ripple effect on all of this is tremendous,” Plummer said. “You have a much better chance of breaking out of deep poverty if you can delay the pregnancy and get that education.
“We’re seeing girls now, compared to other girls in their neighborhood, they’re going on to higher education. Nobody else around them is going.”
The nonprofit volunteers, and the “aunties” who lead the student clubs, try to show the students they have opportunities outside what’s considered the norm, such as selling fruit at the local market.
Each club has the freedom to operate based on where it is and who is running it, Plummer said.
The local-driven groups is what attracted Prince “Smokey” Dube to join Global Sojourns four years ago as field director. Global Sojourns’ approach differs from other nonprofits operating in Africa.
“(Global Sojourns) is there and walks the walk,” Dube said, which he said only deepens the impact the group is able to have.
They might take a trip to the airport, for example, to see what kinds of jobs the girls might aspire to hold after they graduate.
That curiosity and attempt to showcase possibility is how Gilbert ended up teaching journalism to one of the clubs.
Most of the girls don’t read a newspaper and didn’t know what the profession does, so Gilbert started right at the beginning.
“We talked about the point of journalism and why it’s important,” she said, as well as different ways someone can be a journalist.
They’d meet once a week or so to talk about the profession and practice the trade. The assignment that sticks with Gilbert concerned teen pregnancy. The students were tasked with interviewing a neighbor or family member or to write about an issue in the community. The club’s auntie told them to write about the rate of teen pregnancy. The girls interviewed the head of the hospital and found statistics to include in their story.
“I was pretty impressed that they went out and took on an issue that’s socially sensitive,” Gilbert said.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the world – 143 per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 years old – according to a 2013 study by the United Nations Population Fund.
At the behest of the students, she said, Gilbert is tentatively planning a return trip in May to continue lessons. She also met weekly with a group to study English and vocabulary in preparation for their annual exams.
“I think they are eager for the connections around the world,” she said. “They’re eager to understand the world in a better, deeper way.”
Reflecting on her experience, and the contributions of the many other volunteers who spend weeks and months doing what they can to help, Gilbert said she hopes there’s a lasting impact.
“I left thinking that I had opened the door for them in some way,” she said. “Even just a little bit.”
Plummer added that because of the way the group operates – with a focus on local involvement and empowering women – she’s confident the groups would find a way to continue.
“They’re going to keep contributing to their community,” she said. “To me that’s really cool and empowering. They’re the ones who are leading the way forward in the future.”
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